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Where can I find out about the current state of religion in America?

2012 January 16
by Gary Adler

Besides the obvious answer (“read this blog!”), it is helpful to know where to turn for accurate, concise, and well-presented information about religion in America.

The most recent book to do this is Mark Chaves’ American Religion: Contemporary Trends. This is the sort of book that casual readers would like, but so too would church study groups and college students. Even members of the Church hierarchy could learn something from this book (see pages 78-80).

A professor at Duke University, Chaves uses well-respected, publicly available surveys of religion to identify the most important trends in American religious life. The one-word chapter titles and smattering of graphs make this a highly accessible survey of important changes in religious institutions, beliefs, and practices. There are two particular strengths of this book.

First, the book surveys American religion as a whole. Catholic readers might hope for more of a Catholic focus, but the attention to religion in general will help a Catholic audience to understand itself in relation to other traditions and to broader changes. For example, anyone from any tradition is aware of the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon. But did you know that the growth of this phenomenon is due to non-religious people saying they are spiritual, rather than religious people people becoming less so?

Second, the book introduces interpretations and conclusions without settling for a simple explanation. Chaves does readers a favor by introducing enough evidence together on various topics that they can formulate and debate interpretations themselves. For example, Chaves interprets “spiritual but not religious” people as not interested in organized religion, and thus not likely a fruitful target of religious organizations. While that explanation makes sense, enough room is left for us think about other aspects of this topic: What is different between religiously based spirituality and that of contemporary spirituality marketed to us? For religious people, what does spirituality mean? How could Catholic spiritual traditions help to reawaken Catholic institutional life?

Just in case you do not have time to read the book, I’ll share some highlights with you. You’ll see that American religion is dynamic—and that “reading the signs of the times” never stops.

  • Many religious beliefs and behaviors have neither flourished nor declined in recent years. Over four decades, the following statistics (and many more) have—incredibly—stayed the same: 69% of adult Americans pray several times in a week, 31% read the Bible each week, 93% believe in God or a higher power, and 62% value following individual conscience.
  • Americans think that religious involvement and belief have increased, but they haven’t. If anything, there are some important challenges. More Americans (17%) report no religious affiliation than ever before. Weekly worship service attendance probably hovers around 25% of the adult population, but in the last 20 years the percent of people never attending worship services has risen from 13% to 22%. Engagement in congregational activies outside of worship has fallen by 1/3 since the 1990’s.
  • The reasons for religious change are complex. One reason for declining affiliation and participation may be a reaction to what, in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, was the most publicly advertised form of religion: theologically exclusive, politicized religion. Another reason for change is a shift in family structures: church-going in the past was strongly connected to two-parent families with children.
  • Confidence in religious leaders is near an all-time low (pages 78-80). This means religious leaders in general, as an important social institution of guidance and authority. Compared to other major social institutions, confidence in religious leaders has dropped more quickly. The low point in confidence was in 2002. Survey evidence strongly suggests this was due to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

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